Two days ago, I read a Hollywood News Reporter story (here) on Shonda Rhimes. Here was a woman who produced some 70 hours of annual television in 256 territories; making tens of millions of dollars for herself and more than $2 billion for Disney, but yet in constant battle with her network ABC, over content, over budget for her series Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder.

In 2017, after 15 years with ABC, she left for a first-of-its-kind, nine-figure overall deal at Netflix. However in February 2018, according to the report, before Rhimes had even found a first project to sink her teeth into, Ryan Murphy, another television shown runner inked a deal, reportedly worth as much as $300 million, or double Rhimes’ then-reported sum, and the media narrative shifted. ‘It was no longer, simply, “Shonda Rhimes, trailblazer,” but rather about the now booming eight- and nine-figure market for producers, with at least a few reporters wondering, publicly, why the Black female showrunner appeared to be making so much less than the white male one.’

After reading this section, I saw myself in Shonda. I saw multiple black women who work extensively but rarely claim their space however they define it. Our spaces are never ours to own. Our spaces are never ours to even brag about. Even Rhimes described feeling obsessed watching Murphy not only claim, but own his space. But when she was awarded for Luminary award at an Elle’s Women in Hollywood event, she came to the conclusion ‘that men brag and women hide, even when they don’t deserve to brag, men brag. When men do deserve to brag, they’re good at it.’ But because of the award, because she was being celebrated for inspiring other women for the first time ever, and on behalf of women everywhere, Shonda bragged and rightfully so. Not only is she a black executive producer in Hollywood, she let it be known that she was ‘the highest paid show runner on television.’ She claimed her space even though it felt uncomfortable. She claimed her space not only for herself but for every other women she inspires everyday.

Coincidentally, claim your space is the title to a paper I co-wrote with colleagues years ago. In it we shared an African proverb to illustrate why leadership and claiming your space matters. The proverb simply states: He who is leading and has no one following is only taking a walk. Leaders we argue, all have to do the necessary work to build up the visions of those around them and not just their own. I try my best to embody this style of enlightened leadership with the students I mentor.

But the African quote on the section we wrote on claiming your space, which simply states: ‘Until the lions produce their own historians, the story of the hunt would glorify only the hunter’– is my favorite proverbs of all times. Shonda Rhimes, is the lion of our times, claiming her rightful space as the highest paid show runner on television. Her story, her resilience, her ability to inspire is the reason why we should all do our part to keep claiming our space and brag about it too.

In 1983, Chinua Achebe wrote a very short book entitled ‘The Trouble with Nigeria.’ In it he suggested that the trouble with Nigeria then was ‘simply and squarely a failure of leadership…the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility which are the hallmarks of true leadership.’ A student asked one day, why Nigeria, why are all my National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grants focused on Nigeria. My response to her and to others who ask is why not Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. If we succeed in Nigeria, we can succeed anywhere else. Nigeria is full of people who have the will, the ability and the vision to lead health, it’s discovery, it’s innovation.

As the country celebrates its 60th independence today, the question for me is whether Achebe’s sentiments remains, whether the failure of leadership still prevails, or whether Nigerians with the will, ability, and vision to lead health will ever emerge. At some point, thoughtful Nigerians have to rise up so those leaders emerge to make an impact on the nation. Nigeria and Nigerians all over the world have the ability to facilitate innovation with health. With the exception of few, the fear that should nightly haunt its leaders, Achebe noted (but does not) is that those leaders (for health in this case) are not assuming or fulfilling that destiny in Nigeria.

For me personally, as I reflect on this day about Nigeria at sixty, with Achebe’s words in my mind, I would have concluded that the trouble for Nigeria sixty years from today will not only be a failure of leadership but also a failure of innovation, a failure to provide the opportunities for a critical mass of Nigerians to do something different that adds value.

NIMR COVID-19 test kit.

The ongoing pandemic alongside the zeal of some Nigerians have changed my thinking. Many Nigerians have risen and continue to rise to the occasion to lead health in ways often not discussed, shared, highlighted or praised. From the molecular test kit for COVID19 developed by the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research that can produce results in 40 minutes, to the life-saving work of Temi Giwa-Tubosun who delivers medical supplies to hospitals in Nigeria, or to my ongoing research I-TEST-innovative tools to expand youth friendly HIV self/testing for Nigerian youth led by Nigerian youth.

Temi Giwa-Tubuosun of Life Bank.

The simple, the very serious, but simple solution for Nigeria today and beyond is innovation. Whether it’s sustaining, whether it’s disruptive, whether it’s breakthrough, it won’t matter. For Nigeria to facilitate mankind’s advancement, doing its part to create something different that adds value is its destiny. At sixty, to Nigeria, my hope for the future, is that we keep unleashing innovative solutions, particularly with health. Today, it is time to take a hard and unsentimental look at the critical question of innovation for Nigeria by Nigerians. Happy Independence Day!

My ongoing research work in Nigeria.

Yesterday award-winning author, Dr. Ibram Kendi lectured on ‘How to be an antiracist,’ at Saint Louis University as part of our college’s Social Justice Annual Lecture. In his book of the same title, Dr. Kendi talked about how antiracist must remain ‘fighters, tireless, durable,’ but fight in other to succeed.

There were so many questions I wanted to ask from the book but we only had one hour with Dr. Kendi so I’ll ask them here. What if we fight and still have knees on our neck? What if we fight and still get colon cancer like you did or breast cancer like your wife did all at a young age? How do you fight a system truly rotten to it’s core with tumors in some cases or no chance at life in others, not for George Floyd or Breonna Taylor and the list goes on and on? How do you dismantle the system of its racist policies with tools that are off the system, tools that are focused on self-interest? Audre Lourde said it best, ‘we cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.’ Can antiracists still hold conservative views in 2020? Dr. Amber Johnson’s eloquent question still rings bells in my hears and I am not sure what your actual response was (not your fault my kids were listening too with my 8year old daughter inspired to see a real-life ‘book writer’).

You shared a W.E.B Du Bois quote where he asked Black people ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ To that you replied and in 2020, ‘How does it feel to be a solution?’ I am guessing this is what you mean by antiracists must fight. Antiracists are the solution and the only way solutions have a chance to survive is to fight.

Antiracists fight so that opportunities and outcomes are equal between groups. Antiracists fight so that policies, not people, are blamed for societal problems. Antiracists fight so that nearly everyone has enough. Antiracists fight for power to become mainstream and ideas common sense until success is achieved. Success, Dr. Kendi noted, will be based on what antiracists are ‘willing to do.’

We can survive metastatic racism just as you survived metastatic stage-4 colon cancer and your wife with stage-2 breast cancer. It will take a fight for us all to treat racism like we treat cancer. Listening to you last night, gave me the hope and believe in the possibilities of fighting to become the solution. Fighting to transform our society. Fighting to give humanity a chance to survive. It will take a fight for us all to survive and like you, I am ready to fight.